When President Trump lost in November, he joined some select and unpleasant company: presidents who failed to win a second term. Modern presidents most often win reelection, including all three of Trump’s immediate predecessors. Trump became just the 10th elected president to run a second time and lose.
Raphael Warnock’s win and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff’s current lead, if it holds, would give Democrats 50 votes in the Senate and effective control, by virtue of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris breaking ties. That would mean the GOP lost the House in 2018 and now the presidency and the Senate in 2020, after it came into office holding all three levers of power.
Trump would become the first elected president since the Great Depression to lose all three in a single term, and he would join just five other presidents in doing so.
There are some caveats here. First, and a big one, is that, as noted above, it’s already rare for modern presidents to lose reelection in the first place. Since the last president to lose all three levers of power, Herbert Hoover in 1932, only two elected presidents have run for and lost a second term: Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. But that also reinforces how unusual Trump’s distinction is, because it required him doing something that is increasingly rare in the first place, by losing himself.
Second is that this happened with much more regularity more than a century ago. Back then, our politics were less polarized and less gerrymandered, leading to bigger shifts in Congress from one election to another. These shifts often, logically, corresponded with which party won the presidency. Between 1800 and 1912, four presidents were elected with both chambers and went on to lose both of them and reelection four years later.
And a third is that several presidents opted not to seek reelection, perhaps reading the tea leaves and deciding not to join the company of single-termers who lost.
But our more polarized country now issues more split decisions.
Carter had big majorities in both chambers when he was elected in 1976 and, despite him losing in 1980 and the party losing ground in both the House and Senate, Democrats retained a sizable House majority.
When Bush was elected in 1988, he didn’t have the luxury of his party controlling either chamber. By the time he lost in 1992, the Republican Party lost a little bit of ground in each.
The GOP’s losses in the House and likely the Senate on Trump’s watch have also been, while shifting control of each chamber, not exactly huge. Republicans had 52 seats when he won in 2016, and now they will have 50. In the House, they had 55 percent of seats, and now they’ll have 49 percent. Those Democratic majorities are razor-thin, which will give the GOP less motivation to overhaul itself in the post-Trump era. Why reinvent the wheel if you are that close to winning — including in the presidential race, in which the decisive states went Democratic by about 1 percentage point or less?
But majorities matter, as of course does the presidency, and the Trump-run GOP will now apparently have lost all of them.
And that’s particularly notable given the favorable setup they had. In the House, their control over redistricting 10 years ago made it very difficult for Democrats to win it back at all. The GOP also has an inherent advantage in the Senate, which gives disproportionate weight to more-rural — see: red — states. (Trump won 30 states in 2016 despite losing the popular vote, for example, and he won half of them in 2020 despite losing the popular vote by 7 million).
Given those fundamentals and our current polarization, losing the presidency and both chambers, despite the close margins, is a significant mark against the Trump legacy.
And that’s especially the case given what happened in Georgia. The state was extremely close in the presidential election, and Republicans took more votes in the Senate races on Election Day. The runoffs were the GOP’s opportunity to maintain divided government, which history shows voters are quite fond of and which should have been a very potent argument.
But rather than helping Republican senators protect Trump’s legacy or at least providing a check on the new administration, voters apparently decided to more definitively turn the page and transfer all of the keys of power to the Democrats — just four years after they had decided to put all their eggs in Trump’s and his party’s basket.